30 November 2012


Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (14)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

We might be inclined to think that, of all the passions, monks struggled the most with lust. We know very well that some did, but the passion with which they struggled the most was actually anger; and the desert fathers knew that anger can develop into more serious sins, putting up barriers between ourselves and others.

In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus delineated what he called the eight dangerous thoughts: gluttony, fornication, love of money, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory and pride. With some modifications, these become known as the seven deadly sins: lechery/lust, gluttony, avarice/greed, acedia/discouragement/sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Evagrios did not use the word sins, but rather thoughts. Evagrios said, "It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not the passions are going to harass and attack the soul. But it does lie within our power to prevent impassioned thoughts from lingering within us and arousing the passions to action" (here).

On the particular subject of anger, Evagrios thought it to be the worst passion of them all. It is the response to resistance or interference with goals and intentions, or to fear, irritations and disappointments. It's the response we may have when we are busy and someone interrupts us. It's the response we have when we are driving and either are cut off, or impeded in our progress by the driver in front of us driving slower than we are (even when we're trying to drive the speed limit). It's the response we have when our internet connection is slower than usual, or if we lose the connection altogether because our modem suddenly fried or died. In each of these, and similar, cases we are responded to an obstacle.

At its most fundamental level, anger is the desire that some harm come to the person or object thwarting us, whether or not we desire to commit the harm ourselves. It also exults in seeing harm come to those who, we believe, have stymied us. For example, when the bottom fell out of the economy, I read in the comments to a news article, one commentator express glee that rich people were losing money and going bankrupt because they needed to know how it feels to be poor. Why? Because simply by being rich these people had committed some harm to others, especially, one supposes, the commentator—and his fans.

According to some psychologists, anger is rooted in childhood insecurity. Easily angered people don't always yell, curse and throw things. Sometimes they withdraw, sulk, or become physically ill. Anger may be more responsible for most of our sins than we may imagine, even our sexual sins. I recall glancing through a book in a bookstore, a book about marriage and divorce, in which the author made the claim that all adultery is rooted in anger. There are probably many explanations for it but I suspect there is much truth in that. Many adulterers have been hurt (or perceive themselves as having been hurt) by their spouses. Adultery can very easily be understood as rooted in anger, since anger itself is rooted in pain.

The Westminster Divines were not unaware of the spiritual necessity of harnessing and resisting the passions. In its teaching on the implied duties and prohibitions involved in obeying God in the Ten Commandments, The Larger Catechism includes acts intended to confront and restrain the passions. For example, the duties required in the sixth commandment's prohibition of murder are "all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent."

Note among many of the duties, some of which seem to be unrelated to the commission of murder: "quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations." We might easily see how having a quiet mind and a cheerful disposition are related, since these dispositions are the opposite of anger, without which there can be no murder. But "a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations"? What about these? The truth is immoderate use of these things (food and drink, medicines, sleep, labor and recreations) is a life filled with "surfeiting", or dissipation and drunkenness, a life of indulging the passions, which the Lord forbids, rather than a life of alertness and prayer, which the Lord requires (Luke 21.34-36):
Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

It is not that we are forbidden to have pleasures. Even John Calvin, falsely-accused killjoy recognized that Scripture nowhere forbids us “to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.19.9). But, as he goes on, in the same place, to say, “ [L]et all remember that the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury....” The Christian life is, among other things, a life of alertness.

But what can we do about anger? Recall that anger is our response to resistance, or injury— even perceived resistance and injury. It is also a response to some deprivation or, again, perceived deprivation of pleasure or need (even, yet again, perceived need). We must deal with it as a response, more specifically as a learned, habitual response.

The monks employed several strategies in their battles against this emotion. First, we shouldn't be surprised to find anger lurking within our souls; we shouldn't be discouraged or despondent about it, either. We are fallen; our feelings do get hurt. We are also creatures of habit. It is dangerous not to admit this. If we don't admit that we can be hurt, we are likely not to realize that we have been hurt and, as a result, not very likely to recognize even the potential for finding anger within us, much less the reality. It was common for monks to believe they were, or should have been, above being angered. The wisest of the monastics knew better than to think monks were not like everyone else. As I have quoted St Chrysostom, both layman and monk "must rise to the same height." The monk, simply by being a monk, has arrived nowhere.

Second, when we do find anger, we have to deal with it immediately and decisively. If not, if we let it simmer in our conscious or unconscious minds, it will take root within us. We must keep short accounts with others, pulling weeds daily. As St Paul says: "Do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Ephesians 4.26). Some people think this means letting everyone who has angered you know they have angered you. There may be times when this is necessary, but in many cases what usually happens is that the other person believing (as we all do; let’s admit that, too) he has been falsely accused simply gets angry in turn. There’s a fine mess. Keeping short accounts means forgiving those who have made you angry. And forgiveness does not mean changing how you feel. To forgive is to relinquish a claim to restitution; it is a decision not to seek repayment for the wrong. Yes, that means we suffer the slight, which means we, ourselves, in effect pay the debt that is owed us. But that is exactly what it means for God to forgive us. Forgiveness of debts always costs the creditor. (This is a commonly mis-understood element of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.11-31. The father did forgive the son, but it cost him half of his wealth in order to do so.)

Third, the most effective way to deal with anger is to die to our egos; this is also the most difficult. We are very sensitive to what others may think of us, suspicious that others may be talking about us unfavorably behind our backs. We get hurt when others disappoint us, convinced (truth be told) we had a right to expect differently of them. Then too, we may feel that others expect too much of us, and have no right to do so. One of the desert monks had a humorous tale by way of remedy:

A brother  came to see Abba Makarios and said, "Abba, give me a word that I may be saved." Abba Makarios said, "Go to the cemetary and abuse the dead. " The brother went there and abused them and threw stones at their graves. The he returned to Abba Makarios and told the old man about it.  The old man asked, "Did they say anything to you?" He replied, "No." The old man said, "Go back tomorrow and praise the dead." So the brother went away and praised them, calling them apostles and saints and righteous men. He returned to the old man and said, "I have complimented them." And the old man said to him, "Did they not answer you?"  The brother said, "No." The old man said to him, "Do you know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak? So you too, if you wished to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.

We too must become like a dead man, dead to our egos. In such a state of mind neither praise nor insult can harm us. Yes, praise can harm us, even if only by setting us up for disappointment when we are not praised (and moving us to attempt things for purposes of eliciting praise) and by making insults ever more difficult to bear, making us angrier than we might otherwise have been. This isn't to say we shouldn't express gratitude when we are praised, depending upon the nature of the praise. But we should simply take note of the praise, express gratitude, and forget about it.

Of course, if it were easy everyone would be there and there would be no anger in the world at all. It requires work because, for many, anger has become a habit. And as Saint Neilus the Ascetic said, “Habit leads to a set disposition, and this in turn becomes what may be called ‘second nature’; and it is hard to shift and alter nature.” Indeed. And I know this well, for of all the passions, anger is the one I struggle with most.
20 September 2012

The Africans are coming! The Africans are coming!

And it's a good thing, too!
The Nigerians have landed. They want the gospel reclaimed on US soil because, they argue, the Episcopal Church has abandoned the historic gospel and drunk the Kool-aid of pansexuality and interfaith alliances where no gospel needs to be proclaimed because all roads ultimately lead to heaven.
Actually, African Anglicans have been working here in the US for some time. My Anglican priest father,and other friends of mine who are Anglican clerics, have been working with the Africans here for years. It's a good thing.
23 July 2012

Would Striking Clichés Make Christians More Tolerable?

Would Striking Clichés Make Christians More Tolerable?
03 July 2012
George Will is among those conservatives driven to find victory in a stunning defeat.

By persuading the court to reject a Commerce Clause rationale for a president’s signature act, the conservative legal insurgency against Obamacare has won a huge victory for the long haul. This victory will help revive a venerable tradition of America’s political culture, that of viewing congressional actions with a skeptical constitutional squint, searching for congruence with the Constitution’s architecture of enumerated powers. By rejecting the Commerce Clause rationale, Thursday’s decision reaffirmed the Constitution’s foundational premise: Enumerated powers are necessarily limited because, as Chief Justice John Marshall said, “the enumeration presupposes something not enumerated.”
This desperation to find a victory rides rough-shod over the fact that, as the Chief Justice explained, we are still free to buy (government approved) healthcare or not buy healthcare insurance; we just aren't free to not buy healthcare insurance and not pay a penalty for not owning healthcare insurance. And the IRS is still invested with power it did not previous have; and it previously had a lot.

The IRS now gets to know about a small business's entire payroll, the level of their insurance coverage -- and it gets to know the income of not just the primary breadwinner in your house, but your entire family’s income, in order to assess/collect the mandated tax. Plus, it gets to share your personal info with all sorts of government agencies, insurance companies and employers. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We expect even more lien and levy powers," an IRS official says.
 In our mothers' house, there's lots and lots o' love. What was it Malcolm X said about a fool letting his enemy educate his children?
A tempest in a tea pot, so to speak.
11 June 2012
CHRISTIAN PIATT: Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church
05 June 2012

Weapons? They don't need no stinking weapons.

HOT AIR: Hugo Chaves puts the finishing touches on his plan to disarm his people.
30 May 2012

How Academics Concocted a New 'Middle Class'

Just getting a degree secures the American Dream, right? Not necessarily. And it probably never really did.
24 May 2012

Stairway to heaven?

Dr. Bob Gonzales, of Reformed Baptist Seminary offers a fresh look at The Tower of Babel.
"The infamous 'Tower of Babel' episode (Gen 11:1-9) provides a concise yet poignant display of human pride on a societal scale."
22 May 2012

Gluttony: Mother of all the vices?

Gluttony Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (13)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

The United States are, arguably, in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Many Americans are either eating far too much (far more than is necessary for simple nourishment); or they are eating foods with little to no nutritional value whatsoever. In either case, the reason is probably the same: the food and drink being consumed are delightful to the palate. The truth is, the sort of diet which would prevent obesity is actually very boring, to look at, to smell and to taste. And that really is an important point.

The sin involved in gluttony is the worship of the senses in general, but of the taste in specific. In short, the senses--indeed the entire world of sensory assaults--become substitutes for God. We are, in various ways, lacking peace in our hearts. We are restless and bored, so, instead of turning to God we seek out sundry stimuli, one of the most popular, for some, being food. For such people, food, as a source of strength and inner peace, takes the place of God. For that reason, the sin entailed in gluttony is really a form of idolatry.

Most of us probably think that gluttony involves eating a lot of food. As a consequence, we may be inclined to think that we can easily spot the gluttonous because they are the obese and overweight. Frankly, for many of these the problem is not how much is eaten, but what is eaten, in tandem with how little exercise they may get. Many are gluttonous without realizing it because we don't eat a lot, but we have the same preoccupation with food nonetheless.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis makes a distinction between gluttony of excess and gluttony of delicacy. In the persona of Screwtape, he describes a woman who has no idea the depth of her enslavement to sensuality because the quantities of food involved in her gluttony are so small:
[W]hat do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?.... [This woman] is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a deumure little sigh and a smile, "Oh, please, please... all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast." You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of induging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a lttle scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says: "Oh, that's far, far too much? Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it." If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.
In her novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather narrates the legend of Fray Baltazar Montoya, priest at Ácoma, in Northern New Mexico in the early seventeen hundreds. Balatazar enjoyed living well and self-indulgently at the expense of his native American congregation, so much so that they were always on the verge of revolt. The only thing which held them in check was fear of what they perceived as his magic. "It was clear," as Cather puts it, "that the Friar at Ácoma lived more after the flesh than after the spirit." Overlooking his other sins, we can focus on his gluttony, both of excess and of delicacy. He decided to invite some of his fellow priests from other parishes to dine with him and "admire his fine garden, his ingenious kitchen, his airy loggia with its rugs and water jars, where he meditated and took his after-dinner siesta." Having been trained as a cook in a monastery in Spain, frequently visited by Spanish nobles, he prepared an excellent feast. A particular source of pride was his preparation of a sauce to accompany his hare jardinière. For the sake of brevity, one of the serving boys, carrying in the hare jardinière was distracted by one of Baltazar's guests and spilled some of the sauce on one of the other guests. Baltazar, who was quick-tempered, and slightly drunk with brandy, violently threw his empty pewter mug at the boy, striking him in the head and killing him.

Just like Screwtape said: Quantities don't matter. Food can still be used to produce "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern." It can also produce death.

So, a more telling sign of gluttony may be nothing more complicated than simple preoccupation with food.

The question is how do we learn to engage in a "sober use of meat and drink" as the Larger Catechism puts it (Q. 135)? The desert fathers had so many practices in this regard that there are almost as many different practices as there are desert fathers to study! It's difficult to know what to make of it or how to imitate these practices exactly as they did, since there were so many diverse practices. But we can at least say this. There isn't any need for a lock-step uniformity in practice. The diversity of practice coupled with the success of these practices demonstrates this. In denomonations which observe the Lenten dietary rules, there are some pastors who tell their congregations that they must, in order properly to observe these rules, abstain even from any medications they may be taking. (There are, thankfully, many in those same denominations who give the opposite counsel.) This approach operates with the understanding that the people must observe Lent exactly in conformity with their liturgical texts. One can find churches which prescribe not just how much (or how little) one should eat, but even what one shall not eat (meat; poultry; fish; dairy products, including eggs; alcholic beverages; and oil, etc).

In and of themselves, and persuant to the goal of learning sobriety in the "use of meat and drink", there is nothing wrong at all with these sorts of strict observances. What is wrong is the absence of a rationale for these abstentions. Abstain from these things, because it's Lent. That's all. What is over-looked is the fact that one can easily abstain and still be lead by the stomach or palate into "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern."

But these observances harken back to the monastics. What were they up to? Recall their goal: to increase love for God and for others. How do these abstentions facilitate the achievment of those goals? Rather than being preoccupied with meat, eggs and wine, we need to remember the goal. The purpose for these abstentions is to rid ourselves of a sort of devotion to an elaborate variety in our diet, an elaborate variety that can distract us, by means of a sensory assault, from devotion to God (specifically, devotion to prayer) and to others. The point is to have our body in its proper relationship to the Lord Jesus. (And freedom from enslavement to the demands of our taste buds is also physically healthy.)

Meat, eggs, and wine may not be the things from which we should abstain occasionally in waging our war against gluttony. If all we do is compile a list of foods from which we abstain, as if those abstentions in and of themselves could do us spiritual good, then we have made the same error as the Pharisees, who argued over such things as whether to eat an egg laid on the Sabbath--as if man were made for the Sabbath and its rules (man-made or otherwise), rather than the Sabbath for man (see Mark 2.27). If we do that, we aren't resisting the passions, we're just abstaining from this or that item of food or drink. Our focus will be on the rules about food, what we're permitted to eat on certain occasions, rather than on resisting the passion of gluttony. If you think about it, this focus on what we may be permitted to eat is not too unlike the sort of woman Lewis was writing about, above. That woman, recall, was making work difficult for an already over-worked server.

One way we can resist the passion of gluttony is to demand, expect and be content with less when we go out to eat (or even when we dine at home), to tolerate not getting it our way all the time, or not getting our way at all. If what we get is food, then let's be content with it if by the time it gets to the table it's a little cooler than we might like. If there's water on the table for us to drink, we should be content with it if our servers don't do the best job of keeping our soda glass full. Too often we insist on getting we we've paid for, rather than on extending grace to people who do not cease to be humans just because they've punched a time-clock. It's nice for our food to be as piping hot as we like; it's also nice (though not very healthy) to have a bottomless glass of soda (or beer); it's nice to get what we've paid for. But we should be mindful of those around the world who would love to have the food we complain of; we should be mindful of the fact that those who have prepared our food and those who have served our food probably feel just as over-worked and under-appreciated in their work as we do in our own.

You can see that we can be abstemious about not eating this or that--or eating less than this or that other amount--and still mistreat people. This is not what it looks like to resist a passion. Resistance to passion should move us to treat people better, not worse.

We should also focus much less on pleasing the palate, or our taste buds. Often what, and how much, we eat is dependent upon its taste and how much that taste pleases us. The more intense the sensory assault, the more we are likely to enjoy it. Ask yourself if you would drive as far, and with as much anticipation, for a meal of plain rice and beans, seasoned only with a bit of salt and pepper, washed down only with water, as you would for a simple burger and fries, washed down with a soda--much less for large plate piled high with Mexican food. Most of us would probably prefer almost anything but a dish of rice and beans. Why not, especially when, in most cases, that dish of rice and beans will be healthier than the burger, fries and soda, or even the Mexican food? Because, employing a comparison of sensory assaults, a plate of beans and rice is black-and-white analog television, while the alternatives are color-loaded HDTV. It's not about nourishment; it's about distraction from the cares of life, distraction mediated by that assault of sensory delights upon the palate.

Our use of food for purposes other than nourishiment may often be an attempt at self-consolation. Many of us are stressed, worried, figety, bored, dis-satisfied with our lives or otherwise without inner peace. In the same way that those who struggle with lust may turn to sexual gratification rather than to God when attempting to turn from their stresses pains and cares, we turn to food, seeking relief by using food and drink to stimulate the pleasure centers in our brains. We are even encouraged to do so. We attempt, in short, to employ food (among other things) to provide what only God can provide. For that moment, we feel so much better. That is what gluttony really is. And that is why Christian thinkers have always maintained that gluttony is a form of idolatry. It denies what God has said of himself: In His presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (see Psalm 16.11).

So pernicious is gluttony that Christian thinkers have long claimed that termperance is something like the mother of all virtues. The nineteenth-century Russian Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov said: "Wise temperance of the stomach is a door to all the virtues. Restrain the stomach, and you will enter Paradise. But if you please and pamper your stomach, you will hurl yourself over the precipice of bodily impurity, into the fire of wrath and fury, you will coarsen and darken your mind, and in this way you will ruin your powers of attention and self-control, your sobriety and vigilance."

The Westminster divines, like the desert fathers before them, thought that restraining the passions, even the passion of food, was an important and necessary pre-condition for obedience to God. As I mentioned above, as one of the duties implied by the prohibition of murder, the Westminster divines, in the Larger Catechism (Question 135), included "sober use of meat and drink." The context of the answer makes clear that the divines were looking at internal states of affairs, habits and dispositions (especially of mind) which serve as the pre-conditions for obedience:
A."What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?"
Q. "The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent."
Neither the desert fathers nor the Westminster divines were the first to meditate upon the pre-conditions for obedience. The Lord Jesus, speaking of the suddenness of his return, gave this warning to his disciples (Luke 21.34):
Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. 36 But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
The Christian life is a life of prayerful, priestly devotion to God, a life of watchful expectation of his return. We cannot live that life preoccupied with our taste buds and palates any more than we can live it in preoccupation with our sexual organs, material possessions or status. If we can't resist the demands of our palates, we may have little hope of resisting even greater temptations. In fact, it may be, as I've already suggested, that some of our eating may in fact be substitues for yielding to some of our other temptations.
10 May 2012
Wait! The military are fighting on whose behalf? POTUS seems to think it is his, not ours. Probably just a slip of the tongue.
Thomas Sowell on the crumbling of our moral infrastructure:

[W]hen did the 99% elect them as their representatives? If in fact 99% of the people in the country were like these "Occupy" mobs, we would not have a country. We would have anarchy. Democracy does not mean mob rule. It means majority rule. If the "Occupy" movement, or any other mob, actually represents a majority, then they already have the votes to accomplish legally whatever they are trying to accomplish by illegal means. Mob rule means imposing what the mob wants, regardless of what the majority of voters want. It is the antithesis of democracy.In San Francisco, when the mob smashed the plate-glass window of a small business shop, the owner put up some plywood to replace the glass, and the mob wrote graffiti on his plywood. The consequences? None for the mob, but a citation for the shop owner for not removing the graffiti.
Occupy is a term with military connotations. We should employ a term which more accurately describes them, something like Brownshirts. Maybe I exaggerate.

On the other hand, maybe I don't:
“The Obama administration and many of the un-elected ‘czars,’ either directly or indirectly, are engaged in covert activities with the occupy movement, various labor protests, and other subversive activities inside the U.S....”
POST SCRIPT: I neglected a tip-of-the-hat to Sarah Hoyt, guest-blogging for Glenn Reynolds.

Althouse: Obama's opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage ...

Althouse: Obama's opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage ...: He's always been for it. He's just now admitting it.
09 May 2012

Law school malpractice?

It would be great if law schools did devote attention to The Federalist. But they should also devote an equal amount of attention The Antifederalist. The "antifederalists" had keen insights into some of the problems with the new Constitution (as well as the true intentions of its proponents). For the most part, the prescience of the antifederalists has been ably demonstrated.

By God's grace, "Desert Theology" will resume soon. The last several months have required much in the way of reading, leaving very little time for writing. Next topic: gluttony.
07 May 2012

I suppose Europe could rediscover itself

But it really does, for now, seem to be dying, while America is, arguably, making a come-back..

Who knows. Maybe at the end of all this, Europeans will discover their own culture buried under two centuries of socialist and Marxist garbage: the Europe of Adam Smith and Tocqueville, of von Mises and Hayek, of Aristotle and Aquinas. Maybe they’ll realize their birthright as the original home of liberty and freedom, at long last.
Or not.

UPDATE: It occurs to me I should have added I would like very much for Europe to rediscover itself. Among other reasons, I was stationed in Europe with the Army years ago, and loved it there. But I don't hold out much hope, unless there is a mass re-commitment to their Christian roots. I suspect most Europeans don't see it that way.

Pay more and more, get less and less

Despite our spending more and more on education fewer and fewer adults are able do what used to be easy for most high school graduates: "writing clear, well-thought-out sentences. They’ve never been taught to do that and with each passing year, there are fewer teachers who might teach them how." ~ George Leef, here.

Why Harvard Law Took Elizabeth Warren

That's the title of a fine essay by Hans Bader at Minding the Campus.
Ordinary people have been fired from their jobs in Massachusetts for falsely claiming to be minority. As law professor David Bernstein notes, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the firing of two brothers from their jobs as Boston firefighters for racial fraud, since they had red hair and looked white, although they cited the existence of a black great-grandmother. But they weren't law professors. Politically speaking, they were nobodies. It's just one more illustration of how this country is becoming an "America of Inequalities"....
05 April 2012
David Boaz on the 'social Darwinism' nonsense, and why it's nonsense.

Like many politicans, Romney likes free speech, as long as there's "quality control". What Bill Clinton used to call a "truth detector"?

Don Cheadle, friend of justice.
04 April 2012
The philosopher in me wonders: For a given proposition, "P", and it's negation, "~P" (i.e., "not-P"), of what significance is it that 43% of one group believe "P" and 84% of some other group believe "~P"?

Maybe garbage like this explains why we continue to lag behind other nations in science education. Aside from the fact that most of us don't need to work sci and tech jobs.

"Hello, Pot? This Kettle. You're black." (See this, also.)

Kevin Drum on why inflation is good. (What he really shows is why free marketeers are right about the effects of a free market, especially for labor.)

Some people, like attorney David Dow, think judicial activism is a good thing. So good, in fact, that its practicioners deserve to be called prophets.
03 April 2012
61% of voters think it’s likely Obamacare will be repealed. And 54% favor repeal. That’s if the Supreme Court doesn’t strike it down first. The bad news: “...20% of voters think Congress has the constitutional authority to force everyone to buy health insurance.”

Having read most of the "Obamacare" bill before it was passed, I'm thinking: Why should the SCOTUS both to read legislation that Congress didn't bother reading?

I missed this last week: a brief amicus brief by Hewitt.

15 March 2012

Gun control is about social control, not safety

So argues Thaddeus Russell, here.
23 February 2012


Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (12)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

When the monks went into the desert, their efforts at detachment constituted only a start. Recall that their goal (whatever we might like to think of the means) was to transform the old creation into the new creation given to us in Jesus Christ. The old man died at baptism and the new man is born in our hearts. Nevertheless, the old man tries to hang on, hence that interior struggle to live a godly life.

How can we achieve the love God wants us to have for himself and for others? The desert fathers offered a one-word answer to that question: Humility. Humility is such an important virtue in the minds of Christian ascetics because it is counter-cultural and because is not a much sought-after virtue in most walks of life.

Humility is, for example, not really the chief characteristic most people seek in leaders, especially political leaders. In business, one never hears of corporations seeking executives assert that only the humble should apply. No one ever says that what makes this or that leader extraordinary is his humility--even if they may praise his (genuine!) humility. Humility may look good on a leader, but it really isn't thought to be the chief, necessary attribute.

In contrast, many monks possessed great power by virtue simply of their humility. Crowds flocked to them because of the reputations for humility. Emperors, military and political leaders, the wealthy--as well as the poor--sought out these monks, traveling many miles to get advice and counsel from these "Fathers".

One of the most famous was John the Dwarf. One of the fathers said of John: "Who is this John who by his humility has all of Scetes hanging from his little finger?" (Sayings of the Desert Fathers 36). An entire community of monks willingly suspended themselves from their abbot's little finger because of his humility. Contrast that with the numbers of people, particularly Christians, who are suspended by some Christian leaders' little fingers, not because of their humility, but because of some other type of power/ability, especially an ability to guilt or otherwise manipulate. One wonders how many CEOs get things done because their subordinates hang from their little fingers because of their humility.

Of course, John didn't start out humble. Like many, he had it forced upon him. The story is told that John told his elder brother, Daniel, that he no longer wanted to be concerned about clothing and food and wished to live like the angels in heaven. Removing his clothing, John removed his clothing and left his cell. After a week John became hungry and went back to the monastery and knocked on the door.

"Who is it?" Daniel asked.

"It is I, your brother, John."

Daniel replied, "John has become an angel, and is no longer among men."

John continued to knock, but Daniel didn't let him in until morning. Then he said, "You are a man, John, and must work if you want to eat."

After being brought to his senses St John went to St Pomen, known for his firm and steadfast will, asked guidance and promised obedience in all things. St Pomen tested John's patience and humility by assigning him an unusual task. For three years St John carried water and poured it on a dry stick, until it bore fruit. St Pomen took the fruit to the brethren saying, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience."

It was only after being taught, the hard way, that he was a man, not an angel, that John the Dwarf acquired the humility which made him famous, and valuable as a teacher and leader.

But we must note that there is a false humility. And it disguises itself in many ways. The desert monks were quite aware of this. One of the most common forms of false humility is poor self image. It's true that St Paul tells us we shouldn't think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but we should have sober judgment in accordance with the faith God has given us. A poor self image fails to account for whatever gifts God has given us. What's expected of us is a balanced self-assessment, not too high, not too low. Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners, but we never find him down on himself in his epistles. He is still an apostle, and he expects, rightly, to be treated like one. At the same time he is humble, because he knows he will answer to Christ for his work. And his humility is demonstrated in the fact that, while he does talk about himself occasionally, he is always drawing our attention not to his accomplishments (which he dismisses as rubbish) but to what God has done in Jesus Christ. We also can possess true humility by remembering that, whatever our own accomplishments, they pale in significance compared to what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.

Another type of false humility is to run around with a dark cloud over our heads. In this state of mind, we run around telling ourselves and perhaps others how unworthy we are. This is paralysis. But real humility, accompanied by real repentance, doesn't need to live like this. We shouldn't live like this because we've been freed not to do. Once we've confessed our sins to God and have been forgiven, He wants us to let it go. Living as if he hasn't forgiven us is not true humility.

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Pomen gives us some well needed advice:

A brother said to Abba Pomen, "If I fall into a shameful sin my conscience devours and accuses me saying, 'Why have you fallen?'" The old man said to him, "At the moment when a man goes astray, if he says, "I have sinned”, immediately the sin ceases. (Saying No. 99)

Having been forgiven by God, we need not walk about with poor self image, moaning about how unworthy we are. On the other hand, the fact that God has forgiven us does not mean that any we have harmed have forgiven us, even if we have asked them to do. While that fact should not burden us with a sense of our unworthiness, it should help us with that sound judgment St Paul talks about in Romans 12.3.

For the sake of true humility we are not to worry about past sins. Once God has forgiven them, they are no longer an issue. Don't keep bring it up in false humility that says you're the worst sinner in the world for committing this terrible sin that you'll never forget. That is not the freedom God has given to us. In true humility we must admit that we committed a terrible sin for which we are very sorry. But we've confessed our sin to God, are forgiven by His grace and can move on. For the sake of humility we must focus on God, not ourselves--even when the focus on ourselves is specifically on our sins against Him and others. God's grace should fill us with both joy and humility--joy because we have been forgiven; humility because we have not deserved it or earned it, and could not have done, even if we wanted to.

But what is humility, and how do we acquire it?

In brief (and this would be my own definition) humility is simply the recognition and acceptance of one's limitations, in all areas of life. Consequently, it entails, among other things, submission to God and all other legitimate authorities in our lives; recognition of the virtues and talents possessed by others, particularly when they surpass our own; giving due honor and, when required, obedience; and recognizing the limits of our talents, abilities, or authority; and, not reaching for what is beyond our grasp.

One of the least humble men in Scripture, to me, is Haman. The sixth chapter of the book of Esther records that one night King Ahasuerus couldn't sleep. So he had his servants bring to him some of the records of the empire. In those records he learned that Esther's uncle, Mordecai, had discovered a plot by two of Ahasuerus's servants to kill him and reported it. Ahasuerus also learned that no honor had been bestowed upon Mordecai in gratitude for this service. So he called Haman and asked him, “What is to be done for the man whom the king desires to honor?” It didn't occur to Haman that the king would want to honor anyone but himself, so he proffered the following recommendation:

For the man whom the king desires to honor, let them bring a royal robe which the king has worn, and the horse on which the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown has been placed; and let the robe and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble princes and let them array the man whom the king desires to honor and lead him on horseback through the city square, and proclaim before him, "Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor." (Esther 6.11)

And the king did exactly that--to Haman's mortal enemy, Mordecai. And, to pour salt on the wound, Ahasuerus had Haman lead around the horse, proclaiming, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor.”

After his humiliation, Haman ran home and cried on wife's shoulder. Had Haman just a bit of humility he would not have thought himself deserving of the king's honor for any reason whatsoever. Any service he might have rendered, or did in fact render, was simply his duty. When we do our duty, we are not owed anything, not even gratitude. As the Lord says in Luke 17.10, "So you...when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'"

Likewise with Mordecai. When he reported the plot, he did nothing but his duty, particularly his duty to his God. If, having knowledge of the plot, he had not reported it, he would have been guilty of Ahasuerus's blood and worthy of condemnation. As the Westminster Larger Catechism says, our duty, with regard to the sixth commandment, includes all lawful endeavors to preserve the lives of others. (See Question 135.) Mordecai did nothing deserving of honor.

Honor is a gift. It is always undeserved and bestowed at the pleasure of the one bestowing the honor. That's why it's called honor, not wages.

In contrast with Haman, when it comes to a lesson in humility, my favorite Bible character, the one with whom I most identify, someone who truly learned his limitations and to submit to God's authority, is King Manasseh. The Scriptures record that Manasseh rebuilt the high places which his father, Hezekiah, had razed, constructed altars for Baalim, and worshipped "all the host of heaven". As if that was not enough, he also built altars in the Temple. He sacrificed his children, used enchantments and witchcraft, dealt with familiar spirits and wizards. Still not satisfied, he set up an idol in the house of God. Finally, Manasseh, and the people ignored the prophets God sent to warn them. God, therefore, brought the Assyrians, who took Manasseh, bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon.

It was there, in Babylon, in affliction, that he turned to and humbled himself before God, and prayed to him. As the author of the Chronicles puts it: "Then Manasseh knew that the LORD he was God."

Restored to his throne, Manasseh removed the false gods and idols out of the house of the Temple. He took all the altars that he had built on the Temple mount and cast them out of the city. He repaired the altar of the LORD, sacrificed peace offerings and thank offerings, and commanded Judah to serve the God of Israel.

Finally, it's one thing to talk about the need for humility, but how does one actually go about acquiring this virtue? I think the one man in the history of Christianity who truly provided a guide for this was a St Benedict of Nursia. In his Rule he published twelve practices to guide his monks in the acquisition of this important virtue. I'll let St Benedict conclude this post:

The first degree of humility...is that a man always have the fear of God before his eyes (cf Ps 35[36]:2), shunning all forgetfulness and that he be ever mindful of all that God hath commanded, that he always considereth in his mind how those who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and that life everlasting is prepared for those who fear God. And whilst he guardeth himself evermore against sin and vices of thought, word, deed, and self-will, let him also hasten to cut off the desires of the flesh.


The second degree of humility is, when a man loveth not his own will, nor is pleased to fulfill his own desires but by his deeds carrieth out that word of the Lord which saith: "I came not to do My own will but the will of Him that sent Me" (Jn 6:38). It is likewise said: "Self-will hath its punishment, but necessity winneth the crown."

The third degree of humility is, that for the love of God a man subject himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle saith: "He became obedient unto death" (Phil 2:8).

The fourth degree of humility is, that, if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay, even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up, but hold out, as the Scripture saith: "He that shall persevere unto the end shall be saved" (Mt 10:22). And again: "Let thy heart take courage, and wait thou for the Lord" (Ps 26[27]:14). And showing that a faithful man ought even to bear every disagreeable thing for the Lord, it saith in the person of the suffering: "For Thy sake we suffer death all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter" (Rom 8:36; Ps 43[44]:22). And secure in the hope of the divine reward, they go on joyfully, saying: "But in all these things we overcome because of Him that hath loved us" (Rom 8:37). And likewise in another place the Scripture saith: "Thou, O God, hast proved us; Thou hast tried us by fire as silver is tried; Thou hast brought us into a net, Thou hast laid afflictions on our back" (Ps 65[66]:10-11). And to show us that we ought to be under a Superior, it continueth, saying: "Thou hast set men over our heads" (Ps 65[66]:12). And fulfilling the command of the Lord by patience also in adversities and injuries, when struck on the one cheek they turn also the other; the despoiler of their coat they give their cloak also; and when forced to go one mile they go two (cf Mt 5:39-41); with the Apostle Paul they bear with false brethren and "bless those who curse them" (2 Cor 11:26; 1 Cor 4:12).

The fifth degree of humility is, when one hideth from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts which rise in his heart or the evils committed by him in secret, but humbly confesseth them. Concerning this the Scripture exhorts us, saying: "Reveal thy way to the Lord and trust in Him" (Ps 36[37]:5). And it saith further: "Confess to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever" (Ps 105[106]:1; Ps 117[118]:1). And the Prophet likewise saith: "I have acknowledged my sin to Thee and my injustice I have not concealed. I said I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sins" (Ps 31[32]:5).

The sixth degree of humility is, when a monk is content with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him holdeth himself as a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet: "I am brought to nothing and I knew it not; I am become as a beast before Thee, and I am always with Thee" (Ps 72[73]:22-23).

The seventh degree of humility is, when, not only with his tongue he declareth, but also in his inmost soul believeth, that he is the lowest and vilest of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: "But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people" (Ps 21[22]:7). "I have been exalted and humbled and confounded" (Ps 87[88]:16). And also: "It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I may learn Thy commandments" (Ps 118[119]:71,73).

The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk doeth nothing but what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that "in a multitude of words there shall not want sin" (Prov 10:19); and that "a man full of tongue is not established in the earth" (Ps 139[140]:12).

The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: "The fool exalteth his voice in laughter" (Sir 21:23).

The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: "The wise man is known by the fewness of his words."

The twelfth degree of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always letteth it appear also in his whole exterior to all that see him; namely, at the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the ground, ever holding himself guilty of his sins, thinking that he is already standing before the dread judgment seat of God, and always saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: "Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up mine eyes to heaven" (Lk 18:13); and again with the Prophet: "I am bowed down and humbled exceedingly" (Ps 37[38]:7-9; Ps 118[119]:107).

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

Part 6, The Goal of the Monastic Life

Part 7, The Walk

Part 8, What's Hindering Us? Understanding the Passions

Part 9, Spiritual Warfare: Battling the Passions

Part 10, Spiritual Warfare: Three Tactical Errors

Part 11, Detachment: Letting Go

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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